NAM and the Knife Edge

July 5, 2013

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.

Science in spending review : story so far

June 26, 2013

Quick off the mark Beeb summary here. The real McCoy here, for patient readers. (In standard government fashion, much blether and very repetitive…)

Headline (1) Science budget flat cash.  Could have been worse but not exactly good.

Headline (2) Capital budget increased – extra 500M 2015-16.

Detail (1) Increased capital budget is

…enabling significant investment in projects including autonomous robotics, Big Data, and major upgrades and new facilities at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus


Detail (2) : MRC budget apparently not moved to Department of Health.

Most important point… just the beginning boys and girls. Research Council carve-up not yet announced, and maybe not even fixed. Fate of QR (see Peter’s blog post from yesterday) and student finance etc still unknown. Gird your loins and buckle up your breastplate.

CSR Science Optimism?

June 24, 2013

The UK government spending review makes its announcement on Wednesday. The mainstream media have been full of reports of ministers squabbling, especially Osborne and Cable.  Interestingly, while insisting that they love each other, Osborne has said that

I, as a personal priority, want to see science supported – that’s part of this budget, and because Britain leads the world in science, and that’s all about Britain’s economic future.

Coo. Hope he means that. Meanwhile STFC is grinding towards the conclusion of its own Programmatic Review. Science Board met last week and apparently agreed a plan, contingent on budgets of course. Council will endorse in a few weeks and announcements will be made in September. Tension mounts. Do we get LSST? Do we get MOONS or WEAVE or both? I’d love both, and they really go for quite different science goals, but it might be a case of “you can’t have two MOSes”). Add your own frets.

Meanwhile ESA Cosmic Visions grinds along too. Today and tomorrow I am at a LOFT science meeting – I am not specially involved in LOFT, but am here to plug LSST. Every transient LOFT might see (in the southern sky) with the Wide Field Monitor will get a free LSST light curve. My X-ray chums are of course nervous about LOFT versus Athena. They are competing for different slots, and are suitable for very different kinds of science, but how likely is it that ESA will fly two X-ray missions?

War opens on another front

October 22, 2010

So the results are in and we are all ecstatic because we have only lost an ear and not an eye. (Reminds me of a confessional post I shall write sometime). Meanwhile the wise are shaking their heads slowly, and pointing out that the The Great RCUK Carve Up is yet to come, that nothing has been said about capital expenditure, and that STFC is “particularly vulnerable”. The S-word post by Imran Khan sums it all up well.

So as usual we are expecting to be at war with the medics and lose. But now some suggest that another front is opening – war with the engineers. In the build up to the spending review, many were upset when the submission by the Royal Academy of Engineering contained these words :

Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines.    Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Woah ! Chip on shoulder or what ? Now an article by Colin McIlwrain on Nature News suggests there will be a battle coming, and that this is a sign of long standing cultural differences between scientists and engineers in the UK, and in particular the low standing that engineers have in UK and US society as compared to much of Europe. Put another way, we are intellectual snobs.

I find this hard to react to because I think it is true of UK society that engineers are undervalued, but not true of scientists – depending on what you mean by “engineer”. I wrote a couple of posts on this subject some time back – on my own blog, and as a guest on \\engtech. Anybody who has had any experience with instrumentation or software projects has enormous respect for engineers. They are a different beast from us, but just as creative, and just as clever. We have symmetrical roles to play and are both crucial in many projects. I don’t see bitterness or paranoia there. So what’s going on ?

I think where there is scepticism, it is not about engineers but about academic engineers. The simplistic view of many scientists is as follows.  “We are the folk who do the research and stubbornly pursue truth; you are the folk who solve problems and invent stuff and make things work. So what does engineering research mean ?”

In other words, many physicists are secretly thinking “Hmm, surely the academic engineers are the ones who aren’t good enough to actually be engineers ?”

Provocative enough ?

Not saying thats what I believe of course, but I detect this undercurrent.

Vital Problems

October 4, 2010

In case you hadn’t noticed there is a petition brewing – Science Is Vital. The arguments against cutting the science budget are well made, and there is a rally planned next Saturday. Volume of public protest does matter : sign up.

Amongst other things, the web site  stresses that science is not so much a fixed body of knowledge but an incomplete project. What don’t we know ? As a postgrad I was inspired by Ginzburg’s “Key Problems in Astrophysics”. I can’t promise to be that good, but here is my personal pick of Top Ten Big Problems. Probably on the obvious side. I’d love to hear your vote.

  1. Why is the Universe accelerating ?
  2. What is the dark matter ?
  3. Why did the Universe start in such a low entropy state ?
  4. Why are galaxy formation and quasar formation so closely linked ?
  5. Are Earth-like planets normal or weird ?
  6. Does the Oort cloud really exist  ?
  7. How is the solar corona heated ? (Time this one went…)
  8. Where did Life originate ?
  9. What causes gamma ray bursts ?
  10. How do relativistic jets form (Time this one went..)

Next up, some practical issues related to Astronomy

  1. Can we predict CMEs ?
  2. Can we find all the potentially dangerous NEOs ?

And some niggly worries

  1. Why are quasar metallicities the same at all redshifts ?
  2. Supernova models must surely be right, but don’t work (I hear).
  3. Quasar accretion disc models must surely be  right, but don’t work.
  4. How come the star formation radio-FIR relation is so constant ? Too good to be true.

I note that the niggling worries are closer to home for me. Probably there are lots of others I just don’t know about ….

End of an era

August 8, 2010

Polish your CV. You could be the next CEO of STFC. If there is anything left to run.

Just before my holidays, I mentioned an STFC web page asking for input to the CSR discussion. This has three interesting updates. The first is a report from Science Board and PPAN. Nothing surprising or scary in this. The second  is news from Council. This is normally so dull it makes you want to chew your own foot off, but on this occasion contains news that will surprise some : the STFC CEO has made it known that he will not take up a second term, and so will leave in March 2012. Council have already set up a subgroup to establish the requirements for his successor.

I think we are way past the personal recriminations stage, so no schadenfreude please. I am tempted to open a book, but probably thats not suitable for public discussion either.

So lets look to the future ! The third update is a link to a presentation given by Director of Science Programmes, John Womersley, to the recent Astronomy Forum.  The bottom line is that BIS will have an answer by October-ish, but the trickle down to STFC won’t be clear until Nov-Dec-ish; and how STFC implements the new budget will be horribly difficult. The feedback our Head of Institute (JAP) gave us was that input is really genuinely desired by Womersley et al. There are going to be some horrible decisions, even if we successfully make the argument that STFC science is investment, and we have less than the Government average 25% cuts.  I am sure individual input will be welcome, but very likely group responses will be more effective, so start lobbying your Head of Department or research group leader.

Even if we were to reduce exploitation grants to zero, we would have a problem. We may be looking at big decisions, like pull out of ESA and do bilaterals, or pull out of CERN. Of course one worry is that negative signals will stop young people committing to the UK; this could be a distinctly non-linear effect, and one that lasts much longer than this spending review.  An interesting positive suggestion that apparently emerged from the Forum was that Fellowships should somehow be strengthened into “New Blood” lectureships. But this requires commitment from our Universities, who ain’t exactly feeling rich either …